The Barriers and Boosters of Collaboration

The Barriers and Boosters of Collaboration

Collaboration is needed now more than ever to solve problems big and small, said GreenOrder founder and president Andrew Shapiro during the "Collaborating for a Change" panel at today's GreenBiz Innovation Forum.

"We must work in a cross-functional manner," he said, since sustainability is not just a scientific and legal challenge, but also a behavioral and management challenge.

Something that is making collaboration among different areas easier is similar language, said Nathan Shedroff, designer and program chair at the California College of the Arts. "What is at the basis of collaboration," he said, "Is a necessary foundation of effective communication."

The worlds of sustainability, business and design are now using similar language and similar principles when speaking about themselves and one another. In addition, non-governmental organizations, engineering, governments and other areas are using the same language, making collaboration easier.

"They describe their place in the much the same way as everyone else," Shedroff said. "This has never happened before."

Nevertheless, barriers remain. 

Angela Nahikian, director of global environmental sustainability for Steelcase, said that one of the challenges of being more collaborative within Steelcase is the company's history; Steelcase will be 100 years old in 2012. "There is a lot of organization," she said.

Another barrier is the law. Companies are constrained by laws from collaborating with people in some ways, Shedroff said, noting how as a kid he would send ideas to companies and receive back form letters saying they can't look at the ideas.

Scott Elrod, vice president of PARC, a design subsidiary of Xerox, said that PARC has missed out on working with individual inventors due to the legal framework they have to work in, confidentiality agreements, non-disclosure agreements and other documents. "We didn't really have a sufficient written understanding of the business terms that would come out of (one possible collaboration) if it was successful...and it fell apart," Elrod said.

Going along with that, Shedroff advocated for changes to economic and business models. "That's intensely frightening to people who have a vested interest in lucrative business models," he said. But he noted successes companies like Apple and Steelcase have had in transforming from purely product companies to also product and service companies. "There are great business models you can transform into," he said, "But you have to rethink what you are and why you exist."

Photos by Goodwin Ogbuehi,